Try this for some postmodern nerdishness: Pull up your search engine, type "roundabout controversy" and then behold. From sea to shining sea, be it urban or suburban, the debates about these special street intersections chase their tails endlessly.
It's astounding how similar the language is for and against roundabouts at town hall events across the land. We've had some good-sized donnybrooks on the topic here in town, including over the Central and Eighth Street location. That final City Council meeting was epic. The latest chapter is the much-covered roundabout in the North Valley at the intersection of Rio Grande and Candelaria.
Why a roundabout there? At first blush it would strike one as a rather ridiculous indulgence, given a posted speed limit of 35 mph, a decent bike lane, little to no visual obstructions. Also, it's the North Valley—not exactly east Lomas in traffic scale.
The firm putting the numbers together discovered the average speed on Rio Grande is 43 mph (eight over the limit). Worse yet, 170 vehicles were clocked at speeds between 51 and 70 mph. That blows me away.
The result? The intersection sees 300 percent more accidents with pedestrians than the rest of the city, equivalent to the San Mateo and Montgomery intersection. That is just startling for an area that rightfully prides itself on a mellow pace of life.
I used to bike Rio Grande daily, and let me tell you something—a car not 5 feet from your handlebars going 70 mph or more is a frightening experience. I've been shocked to the core over the years at the speeds I've witnessed.
I got to attend that final, 250-strong meeting about this roundabout a few weeks back. You can't get a feel for the crazy in the room from a newspaper article or photograph. It was intense. I doubt there was a single soul without an opinion either way coming in the door. And it's pretty unlikely any opinions were swayed.
So what's the deal for those who oppose the roundabout? If the opposition language at the microphone coast to coast is so similar, what is the root of it that causes such a universal expression?
I've been shocked to the core over the years at the speeds I've witnessed.
At the meeting, it seemed like the buzzword was fear. Most folks are afraid of the unusual traffic measure—just as others are afraid of speed demons roaring down the street. What they miss, however, is that a dose of fear is the reason why roundabouts work.
Jerry Ginsburg, president of the Thomas Village Neighborhood Association, wrote in the Journal earlier this month that a roundabout at the intersection won't help. Instead, the real problem is driver inattention.
But what’s antidote to driver inattention? Fear. Roundabouts cause nervousness. It's pretty hard for a traffic engineer in front of a hostile crowd to try and get this idea across, but fear is our friend on the road.
Roundabouts make us sit up and think, "OK, I have to make some careful decisions here." This is precisely the head space we should be in at any intersection.
Survivors of four-way intersection accidents say, "I never saw it coming." Roundabouts always make you see it coming. It's really just that simple.
I dug further onto this phenomenon when reading an interview with Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). A crisp 275 (e-)pages, it's a traffic nerd's wet dream. He says that when we drive, we're using hundreds of discrete skills while traveling at speeds beyond what our evolutionary history would suggest we're capable of. While were doing this, we're also making predictions about what other drivers are about to do.
I came away from this book astonished that we all haven't wiped each other out in crashes, given what we have to do behind the wheel second by second. And that brings us back to roundabouts and why, in Vanderbilt’s words, they work: "Roundabouts feel dangerous because of all the work one has to do, like looking for an opening, jockeying for positioning. But it’s precisely because we have to do all that, and because of the way roundabouts are designed, that we have to slow down."
Sailing through a big intersection feels deceptively safe, he says, because the driver is able to put his brain on hold. But those same intersections contain so many more chances for what engineers call "conflict" and at much higher speeds.
The facts matter: There's overwhelming evidence pointing to a decrease in pedestrian / auto accidents at intersections with roundabouts.
It saddens me to recall the woman who spoke at that town hall meeting of watching her child fly through the air and land against the curb. The kid was struck while trying to cross the street and received multiple serious injuries, she said.
Vanderbilt says reckless driving traces back to a rising narcissism in American culture. People are more willing to posit that if they ruled the world, it would be a better place. "Traffic is filled with people who think that roads belong only to them—it’s MySpace—that being inside the car absolves them from any obligation to anyone else." That, my friends, is the melody underneath the opposition at these town hall meetings.
Here's another perk in the plus column: Roundabouts decrease air pollution in the immediate vicinity. Vehicles (especially those with some miles on them), pollute most at a dead stop. Think of San Mateo and Montgomery and the enormous accumulation of emissions from the many autos at idle there. The engineering company hired to assess the energy impact predicts a 42 percent drop in air pollution in the area and a 30 percent savings in gas, since we use more fuel from a dead stop.
Mark my words: This Rio Grande argument is long from over. The next fight will be about public art in the roundabout. Want proof? Pull up your search engine, and type the words "roundabout art controversy.”